by Philip Price
I saw the 1977 version of “Pete's Dragon” numerous times throughout my childhood. I still own a DVD copy of it that sits alongside the likes of “Mary Poppins” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” on my shelf, but do I recall much of it? No, not really. I can't put my finger on why exactly nothing other than the character design of Elliot the hand-drawn dragon comes to mind, but it doesn't. Not so far as story goes anyway or what the underlying lessons of the picture might have been attempting to teach children of that generation. And so, while I have memories surrounding the original film on which this new, 2016 version directed and written by David Lowery (“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”) is based, I don't recall the specifics of the actual movie -- leaving me to wonder what about this story was worth retelling. What, if anything, might make it relevant now? On the surface it would seem that this updated version of “Pete's Dragon” is here for no other reason than for the studio to continue operating on brand recognition; remaking their older classics into new, live-action spectacles enhanced by today's digital effects. It could also be that every generation more or less needs its evil corporation cautionary tale and what better way to do that here then by positioning the adults as not necessarily bad guys, but people simply caught-up in their own agendas who happen to work for timber companies? Immediately this version of “Pete's Dragon” feels different than this though. There seems no hidden agenda, no sense of obligation to re-make this specific material because Disney deemed it necessary, but rather one can sense a desire to convey this story for reasons bigger than any financial gain or profit it might earn. Lowery has crafted a film that desires to get at the heart of what makes the innocence of childhood so hard to grasp, so difficult to define and how depressing it can be that we don't understand the preciousness of that time as we're experiencing it or more harshly when it is taken away from us and all we have to remember it by are those rose-tinted glasses that distort it in favor of the pleasantries. The 2016 “Pete's Dragon” is something of a love letter to those pleasant moments. To how strong the ability to believe in something greater is at an age when we don't fully understand the scope or nature of the world or the human race. The best part is that none of these ideas are overtly telegraphed in the film. The film is very much the story of what happens when a town discovers a boy living in the woods with his pet dragon, but through this it makes one feel all of the aforementioned emotions and it is in those elicited emotions the movie transcends whatever it might have originally been intended to be.
No longer are there abusive adoptive parents or a lighthouse, but rather there is a darling family of three traveling along a wooded road when a deer jumps out in front of them causing the father to swerve and their car to go over a cliff into the depths of the surrounding forest. Just prior, the young boy of the mother and father who is seated in the back reading a book about a lost dog named Elliot is told by his mother how brave he is. With no idea he is going to have to immediately live up to that compliment, Pete finds himself stranded in the woods. It's as if the wolves can smell his instant fear as they swarm around the young boy, but the trees begin to move, the tallest of them even bowing to whatever is moving through them. The wolves scatter and Pete sees what is giving them cause to retreat: a large, finely-haired green dragon hovers over him. There is no fire to be weary of, but the beast's large wingspan is impressive in a way that can only be described as magical. Pete innocently asks the dragon, "Are you going to eat me?" to which the dragon grunts a somewhat audible "no" as he moves his head downward. The dragon lays out its humongous paw, coaxing Pete to sit down and as the child does so the dragon wraps both its massive forearms around the child, protecting him, so clearly cherishing him. All of this soulfulness occurs even before the title card comes up and from there it feels similar to a sigh of relief as Lowery has made it imminently clear how settled in we can become with these characters. The film then moves six years into the future introducing us to forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father Meacham (Robert Redford) who claims to have previously had an interaction with the dragon in the forest, but who everyone dismisses as something of an old kook. Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley) who has a young daughter named Natalie (Oona Laurence of “Southpaw”) and a brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who he owns that previously mentioned timber company with. This divide isn't driven to extremes until Gavin pushes the boundaries of how far his and Jack's company are supposed to be cutting into the forest. It is on a day when these two clashing mentalities meet that they spot an older, more feral Pete (Oakes Fegley) living among the wild and take him in, spurning a number of questions and theories especially around his friend Elliot who he can't help but continue to mention.
Lowery's “Pete's Dragon” is one of those films, much in the tradition of great Spielberg movies, where the children involved are smarter than the adults. That distinction here isn't as harsh as it sounds as Lowery is able to position the lovable kid leads in Pete and Natalie as not necessarily "knowing" as much as the adults in their lives, but more seeming to better understand how the world around them works -- or at least how it should work. Reinforcing this kind of psychological state that Lowery is crafting is the fact he and co-writer Toby Halbrooks have set the film at some point in the ’80s. This decade lends a comfort and familiarity to the character tropes, atmosphere and ethereal sense that we gain from both Pete and Elliot being on screen. As audience members who can guess the expected beats of the story there is a thrilling edge to the fact such moments are executed so well and with such sincerity that it creates a tone and atmosphere that makes us feel a part of the lives of these characters and the adventure they're experiencing. And that is from the perspective of someone who has seen similar stories come to life before. For a younger, less seasoned movie-goer I can only imagine the understanding that Lowery conveys and is seemingly able to connect with at such an impressionable stage of life is nothing short of extraordinary. In that same fashion of single-minded antagonists we genuinely come to dislike in that era and genre of movies, Urban's character and his machismo need to live up to his own ego that pushes him to conquer and call the biggest animal in the forest his own is one we really come to despise. This works both as the villain of the piece, the force for which Pete and Elliot will have to fight against when their normal routine or lack thereof is inevitably discovered and broken by outside forces, but at the same time serves as a way to both illustrate the physical and mental bravery our titular Pete feels he must embody. Given that blessing by his mother just before her death, it seems Pete has carried it as a responsibility he must ensure he lives up to. As Gavin tries to hunt Elliot and then take him away from Pete just as his parents were, our hero weathers the storm by never letting that guard of bravery fall. It’s a bravery the story rewards by making Pete the most credible character there is in spite of having the biggest imagination.
It seems this was Lowery and Halbrooks intent with their take on the film though, to be able to discuss the theoretical ways in which we sometimes feel the need to approach things out of the desire to ignore trouble altogether rather than dealing with them in a sensible and realistic fashion. Pete is a young child who is put through the ringer and undoubtedly has to make extremely difficult decisions based in reality -- ultimately dealing with them in practical ways. But he comes through on that side of things by leaning on what many would consider an abstract or make believe entity. It's interesting terrain for a family film to cover, but when it consistently feels that films aimed at this type of audience undervalues their capacity and capability for deep, emotional thought it is refreshing to see a movie not speak down to them. Even more impressive is that it expects a certain level of understanding from them, placing all its faith in their ability to comprehend and imagine; that child's ability to see what they want to see rather than accepting what they do see. Beyond this, the film builds and integrates its different moving parts in a nicely paced, methodical fashion that never gives cause for the movie to slow or become boring, but instead allows for the story elements to fall into place naturally. As for how Elliot transitions from being a hand-drawn animated character in an otherwise live-action film to a fully computer generated character -- it couldn't have been more seamless. It's unclear if there was a performer doing motion capture whom the visual effects artists based the movements of the character on, but Elliot comes off wholly charming and effortlessly funny, not to mention beautifully rendered. The shades of green on his coat changing depending on his mood and the inventiveness of having his actions within the forest be repercussions in nature that naturally occur that we wouldn't normally think anything of, much less that a dragon caused them, are a few of the small touches that make the film feel even more remarkable. It comes down to Lowery's vision to show less in exchange for giving the story more resonance and weight that the movie delivers a story about family and imagination that doesn't simply acknowledge those concepts, but is intent to dig deep and find out why such things figure so heavily into happiness. A lofty goal for a movie with a dragon for sure, but one that is pulled off with such ease it's next to impossible to imagine this story being told any other way.
by Philip Price
“Sully” is a slim 95-minutes. It swoops in with a harrowing opening sequence and then only lets its foot off the throttle just long enough to place viewers back at the beginning of 2009 and familiar with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger once again before thrusting them into the throws of the reasons this movie exists. The toughest challenge a movie about the "Miracle on the Hudson" was always going to face was going to be finding a new angle in which to present the story to audiences who were witness to an onslaught of media coverage around the actual event; what was there to the story we didn't already know? Turns out director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (who has only written three feature screenplays the last of which was the 2007 thriller “Perfect Stranger” starring Bruce Willis and Halle Berry) had plenty of material as the not so well documented aspect of the aforementioned "Miracle on the Hudson" was the fact the NTSB conducted an investigation as to whether or not Captain Sully could have in fact made it back to a runway instead of landing a pricey plane in the middle of a river. And so, what Eastwood has is a David and Goliath story of sorts where the line between good and bad is drawn early and distinctly with the script simultaneously evaluating the psyche of a man who happened to be in the right place during a bad situation that would result in him having to separate reality from the strange swirl of whatever kind of life was happening immediately following his unprecedented landing. And on many different levels, no less. This not so well publicized aspect of Sully's story combined with the revelatory state of mind Tom Hanks brings to his performance, some critical editing by Blu Murray (a frequent collaborator of Eastwood's, but someone who's never taken lead on one of his films) that lends these familiar events a whole new level of tension all packed into that slim running time make “Sully” a consistently perceptive interpretation of the events of January 15, 2009 that stands to be largely effective and appropriately affecting.
Editing is key here. As a director, Eastwood is no stranger to methodical pacing (just ask “J. Edgar”), but there seems a keen awareness of how much meaty material one can pull from Sully's plight and an understanding that to try and stretch said material into a two hour dramatic powerhouse would only have the adverse effect and result in a strained and meandering final product. Rather, Eastwood and Murray take us not through the simple (and somewhat expected) motions of crash/celebration/investigation, but instead interestingly mix up the timeline of the events and how we see them unfold allowing for certain events to be reinforced by other moments in Sully's life that give the main series of events more weight and a stronger presence within their own story. It is to be expected that a movie based on a true story will deliver some type of backstory around our main character or at least a few flashbacks that help audiences understand what shaped the protagonist to become who they are at the moment of the main narrative and naturally we get a few on the nose moments such as these in “Sully.” What helps these moments not become stale or rote though, is the fact Eastwood doesn't hover on them for long. These moments are fleeting and informing while feeling inherent to the way the director has chosen to relay his version of the story. They don't come with baggage or exposition, but are instead inserted in moments of deep thought or contemplation when the titular character needs them most. In this way, they are not only meant to give viewers a glimpse behind the curtain and mind, but are meant to play as reassurance to Hanks' Sully as he becomes further disoriented and overwhelmed by the amount of attention and scrutiny he's receiving.
Dropping us into the mind of Sully via his anxiety we are witness to a perspective one may not have previously considered given the narrative around the story when it originally occurred was that Sully was an out and out hero. By casting Hanks, America's favorite actor, in the role there is this immediate sense of trust that Sully did in fact do the right thing to the best of his ability because we trust that Hanks can do no wrong. It's a smart play on the part of Eastwood and his casting department given we never doubt Sully's credibility and are instead more compassionate to what he has to endure and his tormented mentality in the aftermath due largely to the NTSB putting alternate scenarios in his head when there was nothing to complain about in the real-life scenario Sully created. Eastwood, with the aid of Murray's editing, plays a lot with perception here allowing for a film that could have easily been a strict by the book biopic to feel more nuanced meaning we genuinely come to understand the weight of the situation because we're allowed inside the headspace of the man who would determine the outcome of an abnormal and rather extraordinary situation. Combining the aftermath of such events with those of the two hundred and eight seconds it took for the dual engine failure and Sully's instinctual decisions to land the plane on the Hudson River to take place “Sully” strangely enough works in the favor of Eastwood who layers in the tension by showing us first how things could have gone down, then how things did go down, followed by an evaluation of how things maybe should have gone down that is then challenged by re-visiting what Sully and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) actually executed ultimately reinforcing the full extent of just how successful they were given how bad things could have actually turned out.
It is through these shifts in perspective, but not necessarily shifts in opinion that Eastwood is able to garner real drama from these well-known events. In what may be one of the more daring, but certainly rewarding choices in a film this year Eastwood devotes large amounts of screen time to repeated views of the crash sequence so that we may become as familiar with it as those who lived it AKA the character through which we're experiencing the story. By changing how we might perceive these events Eastwood allows us to draw our own conclusions while clearly swaying us in the indisputable direction that comes to be supported by fact. While this may all seem something of a given as this movie had to have more than the news reports relayed to exist in any capacity “Sully” remains a film that feels it would be easy to under appreciate because it does execute its intentions with such ease. There is no ruffling of the feathers, no attempt to do something necessarily exceptional or break the mold, and beyond breaking down the fractured mind and spirit Sully was left with after being chastised for what he believed was simply "doing his job," the film doesn't really care to mess with any existential items or major themes. “Sully,” much as it seems Eastwood is himself, is a no-frills, straightforward type of movie that tells a well-known story, adds a few unexpected caveats, and does so in a compelling and efficient enough fashion to be truly admired.
To the extent that “Sully” desires to chronicle how Captain Sullenberger was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill while at the same time undergoing an investigation that threatened to destroy his reputation and career the film is more a triumph due largely to the coming together of the cast and crew, much like in the real life events, to accomplish a singular and unique vision that will see them through one hell of a story to a happy ending. Though Hanks, like Sully, is the centerpiece for which all other actions and characters are anchored and to which none of this would be possible without it is still up to the supporting characters to make the film feel whole. This remains evident through a wonderful supporting turn from Eckhart and a cast of familiar character actors in more minor roles that radiate authenticity and humanity in otherwise strict and tactical conversations and circumstances. The presence of Mike O'Malley and Anna Gunn could easily be taken for granted, but they willingly play NTSB board members who sport the clear agenda of operating on their own self-interests rather than that of a full career by a pilot whose decisions saved the lives of every single soul he carried on board his aircraft that day. Speaking of the souls on board Flight 1549, Eastwood casts an array of familiar faces in minor roles as if to subconsciously assure audiences that despite these not being people whose names we might know that we still recognize them and in turn recognize that they could just as easily be us. Sam Huntington, Autumn Reeser, Jeffrey Nordling, Molly Hagan and Marcia DeBonis stand out especially. The only real casualty here is Laura Linney who, as great an actress as she can be, is relegated to standing in a kitchen and talking on a phone for her entire part and in attempting to elicit as much drama as possible from such limited material she overplays and overstays her welcome. It certainly doesn't help that her stock spouse character is more grating than supportive either. Given the caliber at which Hanks is operating as well and the insight his performance conveys through Eastwood and the scripts' choices to take us inside the head of Captain Sullenberger “Sully” stands above what it could have been, but despite all of these things that can be described with any number of positive adjectives by the time the film comes to a close one is left with that feeling that while what has just been experienced is easy to admire it may not stick with you like it seems it should.
by Philip Price
“Don't Breathe,” the new horror/thriller from director Fede Alvarez, opens with a distant shot of what looks to be a deserted street. Only later do we find out this is one of the more run down sections of Detroit where time and humanity have left everything behind that might have once thrived there. As the camera gets closer to the street we can see there is someone walking down the middle of it. The camera continues to zoom in slowly-we can tell that someone is dragging something down the road behind them. A little closer. They are dragging another person. A little closer. It's a girl who is either dead or unconscious -- it's difficult to tell and we will remain unsure as the screen then cuts to black. It's a killer opening shot that clearly points to a moment that is to come later in the film, but with its placement at the beginning Alvarez has already enticed his audience to how we might get to this point and whether that shot indicates the end of the line or not. It's a trick that has been used before and will certainly be used again, but every now and then it feels especially inherent to the story being told and “Don't Breathe” feels like an instance where this isn't only a tool to lure the unsuspecting (or suspecting if you bought a ticket, I mean c'mon) audience member into the intrigue of what exactly is going on, but instead this is a choice that lets those audience members (suspecting or not) know up front that Alvarez means to make you question things, to make you pull your knees up to your chin and grit your teeth because you feel so tense. This isn't simply a hook, but an indication of the type of terror the characters we'll come to know are capable of and this is all accomplished in the first 30 or so seconds so one can only imagine what sitting through 90 minutes of such adept perception of what makes people uncomfortable and afraid might be like. In only his second feature film the Uruguay-born director delivers a horror film that, much like his previous movie, contains itself to an isolated location, but only continues to raise the stakes and use that space in inventive and chilling ways. Save for something of a lackluster middle section where, for a moment, the film feels as if it runs out of both steam and ideas for where exactly to take the story and its characters, the film is a tightly scripted and well-performed fright night that finds its footing well enough to redeem itself and pull the cautious viewers back to the side of rooting for whoever gains the most of their sympathy.
In essence, “Don't Breathe” is a three-person show. The film begins with the aforementioned shot then proceeds to establish each of these main players while simultaneously giving reason as to why they're in the position they're in and more or less why we should feel sorry for them. There is Rocky (Jane Levy) a poor girl dreaming of the good life whose mother may as well treat her as if she doesn't exist, but who she counts on to take care of her younger daughter Diddy (Emma Bercovici). Rocky is determined to get out of Detroit and take her younger sister with her. Rocky plans on accomplishing as much by making what seem to be the same mistakes as her mother by dating a guy who calls himself Money (Daniel Zovatto). Money is a white guy with corn rows so I'm sure you can pick up on what type of character this guy is pretty quick. Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues save the one-dimensions and anticipated audience vitriol for this guy. He's the scumbag that orchestrates the robberies -- finding the targets, scoping out the security system and selling the stolen items for money -- while all the while remaining something of an idiot. We don't like Money from the start and that's the point. We like Alex (Dylan Minnette) as he's the love struck puppy who would do anything for Rocky even going so far as to put his father's security company on the line for a couple of bucks and Rocky's potential affection. And so, there's the girl longing for the better life and the boy longing for the girl that will make his life better with the only issue being the spawn of Alien from “Spring Breakers” totally messing everything up. It is when Alien Jr. gets a tip about an old retired vet (Stephen Lang) living in a deserted neighborhood who happens to be sitting on $300,000 after a settlement with the drunk driver that killed his daughter that the "one last job" coup comes up. Alex is hesitant as he doesn't like to steal cash and only a certain number of items so as not to cross a certain threshold for jail time, but Rocky can't help but see this as her big chance to solve all her problems in one swoop which, if you've seen any movie ever, you know never works out the way the character hopes. Money is of course down as it was his idea, but things only take a turn for the worse when the three burglars show up to the house, discover the man is also blind, and that he's not in the mood for their shenanigans.
It is in these characters that “Don't Breathe” finds its greatest strengths. Never do we feel as if either Rocky or Alex are bad people, but rather victims of bad circumstance. Still, they are in the wrong for the majority of the film which is an odd revelation because we are clearly meant to be rooting for them despite the fact they're robbing a blind war veteran who's lost a child. This sets the stage for when Lang's blind man actually enters the picture and begins retaliating against those that have violated his property. It is at this point we begin to contemplate exactly who we should be afraid of. For 40 or so minutes “Don't Breathe” operates as a purely contained thriller giving the audience a set-up with characters to care about and a mission they are absolutely unsure of -- the best way to create unease. When our protagonists enter the house Alvarez keeps things on high alert by lurking in the corners of rooms, never revealing the full scope of the location our characters are occupying. We feel bad for the blind man, but we're rooting for Rocky and Alex to succeed, escape with some of the money (they could at least leave the old guy a few stacks, right?) and live happily ever after. It is when Lang's character who isn't exactly positioned as the antagonist, but totally is, enters into the equation that we understand where he is coming from and, even though we're rooting for Alex and Rocky, don't have a problem with him doing what he feels necessary to protect himself as he's totally within his rights. This is interesting because horror flicks don't typically operate in muddy character waters. There is always a clearly defined enemy and a clearly defined group of people trying to evade that enemy. It isn't until after that 40-minute mark that “Don't Breathe” begins to reveal things about the blind man that muddies the difference in our two sets of characters even further while showing us they're more alike than we may have imagined. While the blind man was previously just the victim to a crime in which we hoped the robbers might succeed in some capacity it is at this point the film begins to reveal things about Lang's character that give cause for confusion and serious concern. It's something of an unexpected layer given we naturally expect there to be more to Lang's character, but not necessarily in the way Alvarez and Sayagues expand upon it. That said, this does set things up for a genuinely surprising third act twist that rejuvenates the slowing momentum and kicks the finale into high gear.
And so, a scary movie that delivers complex characters with hazy morals, but defined motivations -- what more could one ask for, right? Not much to be honest. “Don't Breathe” is a solid little horror flick that has a nifty script that includes cool touches like having the invaders take off their shoes to keep their presence quieter, but come around to bite them in a clever and suspenseful way. Alvarez, upon us first entering the blind man's house, takes us on a tour of the layout with a single long shot that moves through the geography of the location with an unsettling ease establishing what we need to know for the remainder of the showdown to make sense. There are little details like the outline of a cross that once hung over the blind man's bed that is no longer there that foreshadows a certain, singular speech made by the character and other touches including a personal account from Rocky about a trunk and a lady bug that come full circle in two separate instances to push the momentum of the movie forward when it requires it most. Not to mention, Lang gives a largely wordless performance, but is insanely intimidating and unpredictable solely through the expressions conveyed by his eyebrows and defeated posture. It's clear life has beaten this guy down and thus he gains our sympathy despite turning out to be a truly twisted antagonist. In short, there is a lot to like. The shortcomings only arrive in small doses of what feel like slight inconsistencies in the plotting and aforementioned missteps in pacing during the end of the second act/beginning of the third that slow the adrenaline the movie has created in both its characters and audience. There is one glaring scene in which Alex and Rocky are cornered in an upstairs bedroom and can't get out of any of the windows because they are either barred or boarded up. Rocky begins to escape through the ventilation shafts while Alex is left to stave off the blind man and his vicious dog that is beating down the door. The dog breaks through and ultimately tosses Alex through a window we were led to assume was too tough to be broken. It's nothing major and there is likely a reasonable explanation, but it immediately gives way to the feeling the screenwriters were beginning to resort to more convoluted ways of keeping the protagonists within this contained environment. It doubles back on a couple of things too many times and probably goes on a scene too long.
But by its genre terms and what we've come to expect from horror films in late August, this very much delivers on its promise of a thrilling/white-knuckle experience where you'll definitely be holding your breathe.
by Philip Price
There have been many a film versions of Lew Wallace's classic epic “Ben-Hur,” but of course the most notable is William Wyler's 1959 adaptation starring Charlton Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. It is a behemoth at three and a half hours and a product of a different time in Hollywood's history. A time when the studio system still reigned and historical/biblical epics were as hot as comic book movies are today. It was the success of Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments” that also starred Heston that spurred MGM to invest $15 million (the most expensive film ever made at that point in time) in a new version of “Ben-Hur.” So, the question is: why re-make such a larger than life classic? Why even attempt to overcome the aura that surrounds a staple of popular culture as definitive as Wyler's “Ben-Hur”? While I questioned the reasoning for such a re-make it was easier to understand why an updated version of this story was necessary. The 1959 version is very much a product of its time and one that, through rose-tinted glasses, can only be seen as this great epic that nothing and no one can touch or challenge. It has gorgeous practical sets and thousands upon thousands of extras shot on panorama that gives it the impression of being that much larger in its scope. It is also a movie someone of not only my generation, but those likely born in the decade prior to me and certainly those born after me, can't see without the status as one of the biggest, best movies ever made. Heston is this mythical-type figure of the golden age of Hollywood that can never be touched and so to even try and match such larger than life precedents would be an immediate way to automatically disqualify one's self from even being considered a valid piece of filmmaking. Still, with the 1959 version being as intimidating as it is an updated, shorter and more current telling of the story might allow a way for modern audiences to find a way into the older version that they'd heard so much about. From the get-go director Timur Bekmambetov's (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) new version felt like it was going to be little more than a cheap knock-off (despite that $100 million production budget). Fortunately, while this 2016 take on Wallace's story is certainly the cliff notes version when compared to Wyler's it is surprisingly effective in accomplishing what it sets out to do and even has enough gumption to emphasize certain themes and actually develop characters rather than simply summarizing the previous versions with contemporary editing practices.
For those not familiar with the story of Judah Ben-Hur (played here by Jack Huston), he is a Prince of Judea who has a strong relationship with his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) despite the fact their mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), somewhat resents Messala for spending so much time with her daughter and Judah's sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). Tired of the resentment and given these events take place during the time of the Roman occupation of Israel which was once Judea, Messala leaves to enlist as a Roman soldier. As he works his way up through the ranks to become second in command only to Pontius Pilot (Pilou Asbæk who looks like a mix between Michael Shannon and Joshua Jackson) the Romans inevitably return to Judea where the reluctant Judah isn't going to be bullied into Messala's wishes of instructing his fellow Jewish people to stand down for the Romans that are coming through and taking over. Harboring a radical Jew in Dismas (Moises Arias) does Judah no favors though as the Romans initial trek through Judea is interrupted by an assassination attempt on Pilot from the rooftops of the house of Ben-Hur. This forces Messala to prove his allegiance and loyalty to the Romans by having to punish those he once called family. As a result, Messala banishes Judah to the bowels of the Roman ships as a galley slave and it is only through fate and good fortune that Judah survives after five years in the galleys and a battle at sea that he narrowly escapes; washing to shore in the aftermath of the battle and completely uncertain of how he might survive. It is here that Judah encounters Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), an elder who makes money off the Romans excessive nature and who will eventually teach Judah to become a champion-caliber chariot racer. It is through the sport of chariot racing that Judah will exact his revenge upon Messala despite the fact his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), who barely escaped the clutches of the Romans five years earlier, begging him to let this quarrel with Messala go and spend this second chance he has been granted with her rather than in the shackles of hatred. Given the film opens with a glimpse at the moment we're all waiting for -- the chariot race -- we know what Judah will choose.
Though I haven't seen “The Young Messiah” or “God's Not Dead 2” I'd wager a bet “Ben-Hur” is the best faith-based film of the year so far as it opts not to shove its beliefs down your throat, but rather allow the beliefs of the characters to relay a thoughtfulness and credibility to a certain system of beliefs. It is in these characters that the strongest aspect of the film is revealed in the performances. Despite the fact it will forever exist in the shadow of Heston's portrayal, Huston genuinely delivers a great performance as Ben-Hur. This is especially evident in the ship sequence as not only does Huston have to embody a man who has been relentlessly beaten down for five years straight, but must also inhabit the mindset of this character that enjoyed 20 years of privilege prior. On the boat, as a slave, we are given much of his thought process and current mentality solely through looks and body language. We can see the cogs moving, suggesting what Judah's next move might be and it's telling in a way that were he simply yelling sporadically would not be as effective or insightful. Transitioning through this time jump Huston's Judah becomes a more cynical presence than he once was. Vowing to deny Esther's wishes to stay away from Messala by not letting him go unpunished for what he's done to them shows a vindictive personality that contradicts the teachings we've come to know in the Bible. This is, of course, meant to be something of an anti-parallel to the story of Jesus as both experience these spiritual journeys after being betrayed by men they thought of as friends. Speaking of Jesus, Rodrigo Santoro's portrayal of the Messiah brings an integrity and credibility to his few scenes that could just have easily gone the opposite direction. Per usual, Kebbell has been enlisted to play the villain of the piece, but fortunately for the typecast actor he has been given one of the more complex characters in the screenplay. In the beginning, Kebbell gives Messala layers of mystery. It's clear there is a deep love and bond between he and Judah, but given the circumstances of what comes to be we wonder whether or not Messala will remain conflicted or if he will simply become the full on antagonist. I hoped as the movie unfolded that Kebbell, being the talented performer he is, would continue to draw on this identity crisis of sorts that would add more weight to the climactic showdown between he and Judah and to some degree he does despite much of his character development was cut in favor of a brisker pace. A scene where Esther confronts Messala though, and begs for him to call off the race suggests he has completely turned whereas the choice to add a shot off him looking up from his food as Esther is escorted away suggests something deeper. It is this combination of strong performances and directorial subtlety that ultimately overcomes the inevitable comparisons and elevates this more streamlined version of the original text.
This brings us to the biggest fear I had walking into this latest telling of “Ben-Hur” in that I expected Bekmambetov to more or less go through the motions and deliver a generic, modern-action-movie take on the material. In the opening scene of his film though, Bekmambetov delivers a terribly violent sequence in which Judah and Messala are racing each other on horseback before Judah's horse trips and stumbles to the ground. Not only does this provide a bit of obvious foreshadowing in more ways than one, but it also allows the director to deliver a glimpse at the brutality-level the film will entail. This was again reassuring as I was skeptical that the violence and action set pieces of the film would largely be generated through special effects rather than practical stunts and would end up feeling more along the lines of amateurs re-creating the classic moments from the Heston version. More times than not though, Bekmambetov pulls the action off convincingly and ruthlessly. This is especially true in the aforementioned sea battle sequence where the director is forced to balance a mix of digital effects and practical sets and does so in a fashion that creates an authentically thrilling and emotionally anxious experience through the eyes of our main protagonist. Though the director favors his handheld camera technique, even when capturing intimate conversations and the shaky cam can get a little exhausting, there still seems to be a method to this choice. Specifically, Bekmambetov seems intent on keeping things kinetic; capturing the story in a very modern style so that it bears little resemblance to Wyler's film. Adding to this are actual nuances in directorial choices. Bekmambetov doesn't simply cover the necessary bases, but rather he has specificity to his shot choices and compositions that are integral to relaying certain emotional beats of the story or indicating specific actions or items that will come into play later. In short, it's not only a competently made film, but a thoughtful one as well. It has the necessary scope when it finally does reach the moment we've all been waiting for and Bekmambetov does well in re-creating one of the most iconic action spectacles ever put to film by demonstrating his own flairs as an action director that help to make the final act of the film as harrowing and exhilarating as possible. Sure, 2016's “Ben-Hur” won't recapture the Oscar glory of Wyler's Best Picture winner, but it contains fine performances and real substance which is more than I can say I expected from what looked like little more than another “Gladiator”/”300”-style knockoff.